‘Stardust’ – Stan Sulzmann, Nikki Iles

Stardust

IN MANY WAYS – and in the right, focused moment – the carefree eloquence and clear conversational flow of new duo album Stardust speaks volumes about the absolute empathy and trust shared by two stellar British jazz performers.

Career highlights, to date, of saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and longtime friend and colleague pianist Nikki Iles might keep you Googling and scrolling for some time. But here, all of that glittering experience is channelled into the most intimate of musical environments – an unadorned, hour-plus dialogue between tenor sax and piano. And it’s beautiful.

Sulzmann and Iles each offer one original work, with their compositional ‘guests’ including Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Burt Bacharach; and, above all, it’s the improvisational and harmonic elegance – frequently illuminating familiar, timeless melodies across acres of space – which is to be revelled in.

Classic Body & Soul is wonderfully luxurious here, with Stan’s rich tenor momentarily having us believe he’s also picked up alto or clarinet, such is the diversity of his range and timbres. Gershwin’s impassioned, drawling My Man’s Gone Now (from Porgy & Bess) is translated into a more measured blues as Sulzmann’s extemporisations cascade down through Iles’ delicious major/minor chords, characteristic sequences of fourths and delicate high lines; and initially echoing the restrained wistfulness of Bill Evans, Young and Foolish increasingly sparkles to Stan’s mellifluous tenor invention, as does the irrepressible optimism of I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry (away from the sentimentality of its Sinatra/Riddle association). And this nine-track treasury can also dance, with Jerome Kern’s Nobody Else But Me putting on a sprightly, swinging show.

Sulzmann’s references to Evans’ Some Other Time and Peace Piece can be heard in Nikki’s Corner – an affectionate, buoyant tribute to his pianist; and Iles reciprocates with Under The Canopy (from The Printmakers’ Westerly release of 2015), its warm, falling and rising melodies inviting Sulzmann to glide broadly and effortlessly across the pianist’s gentlest of samba rhythms. A perhaps lesser-known Bacharach tune, You’ll Never Get To Heaven, unveils its lyrical beauty with an especially limpid piano interlude; and the concluding title track arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael couldn’t be more lucid, delicate or assured.

Stardust is not so much a meteor shower spectacular, but rather a delightfully reassuring, crystal-encrusted, dark-sky panoply. And as you fix your attention, it magically reveals subtler, coruscating constellations.

Released on 25 January 2016. Available from Jellymould Jazz, record stores and online retailers.

 

Stan Sulzmann tenor saxophone
Nikki Iles piano

stansulzmann.co.uk
nikkiiles.co.uk

Jellymould Jazz – JM-JJ020 (2015)

‘Beneath the Blue’ – Edith van den Heuvel & Frank Harrison

Heuvel_Harrison

THE INTIMACY and openness of the vocal and piano duo concept requires creative focus, confidence and, above all, a deeply shared empathy with the music in order for it to succeed – no hiding place, yet a fascinatingly laid-bare opportunity to express, shape and personalise the nuances of well-crafted song.

Capturing that essence is a new collaboration between Dutch singer Edith van den Heuvel and British pianist Frank Harrison which sees them exploring and interpreting both familiar and lesser-known gems from the repertoire, recording a moment in time (across a couple of days in the studio) in an album which glistens with warmth and emotional sincerity. The vocal range and clear English annunciation of van den Heuvel are impressive, frequently with an appealing ‘woody’ timbre (not unlike June Tabor), and certainly well matched to Harrison’s highly-regarded pianistic sensitivity as he produces typically lush, complex and sometimes left-field chordal constructions. Indeed, rather than ‘singer with accompaniment’, this project is very much a mutual partnership.

Ushering-in the album’s predominant atmospheres, yearning opener Answer Me, My Love finds van den Heuvel reaching out with a considerable depth of expression, the lyrical pain in this 1950s number reflected beautifully by Harrison’s limpid, tenuto piano. The familiar, modulating animation of Duke Ellington standard Caravan takes on a different guise in an inventive, elaborate piano arrangement over which Edith’s voice resonates strongly and deeply, as well as displaying attractive inflections; and the popular Mandel/Mercer tune Emily (also recorded this year on Frank’s trio album Lunaris) waltzes to soft, innocent vocal and equally elegant piano which recalls its favour with Bill Evans.

Arguably the most haunting of Michel Legrand’s melodies, The Summer Knows – introduced here by Harrison’s subtle, solo extemporisations on its theme – is carried superbly by van den Heuvel, portraying it’s fragile major/minor melancholy so affectingly; in contrast, there’s an earnestness to the Kaper/Webster tune Invitation (from the ’50s movie of the same name), a particularly fine melding of piano and voice; and delicately full of longing, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning magically suspends time.

Poignant in a year that jazz felt the loss of the great Kenny Wheeler, the characteristically modest, placid air of resignation in his ‘hit’ Everbody’s Song But My Own (words by Norma Winstone) is affectionally and lucidly conveyed. Cheerfully swinging Lucky To Be Me, from Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town, showcases Harrison’s ear for assured-though-engaging improvisation as van den Heuvel relaxes into its blithe demeanour; and finally, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is precise in its homage to one of Canada’s most revered songwriters, and affirms the enchantment of this particular musical twosome.

Launching on 13 December 2014 (in concert at Salle Robert Krieps, Abbaye de Neumünster, Luxembourg), Beneath the Blue can be purchased here as a CD, at CDBaby (CD/download) and from iTunes (download), or from other online retailers.

To reflect both cover art and title (from Caravan), the sleeve touchingly quotes the following stanza from Shakespeare (as did another champion of song, Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his Serenade to Music) which befits this fine, recommended recording:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

 

Edith van den Heuvel voice
Frank Harrison piano

edithvandenheuvel.com
frankharrison.net

Magenta Hill Records – LC 09632 (2014)

‘Reverie at Schloss Elmau’: Duo Art – Gwilym Simcock & Yuri Goloubev

Reverie

PART OF ACT’S ‘DUO ART’ SERIES, ‘Reverie at Schloss Elmau’ brings together two good friends from the contemporary jazz world – British pianist Gwilym Simcock and Russian (Milan-resident) double bassist Yuri Goloubev – for a programme of gloriously poetic brilliance.

Situated in Germany, towards the Austrian border, Elmau is a favoured stomping ground for Simcock – a recording retreat of creative calm, and the location for his solo piano album, ‘Good Days at Schloss Elmau’ (ACT, 2011). In this same environment, the pianist and bassist have woven together a sumptuous tapestry of co-written originals, drawn from their illustrious classical and jazz experiences – the appeal of this crossover confirmed by their recent, well-received live performance on BBC Radio 3’s established, chamber-focused Lunchtime Concert slot, as well as many international stage appearances.

Recording together previously (on ‘Blues Vignette’, as a trio with James Maddren – Basho, 2009), it’s clear that Simcock and Goloubev have developed a strong telepathic communication, their compositions leaping to the vibrant rhythms of jazz, as well as incorporating the grace and complex harmonic language of (amongst others I hear) Debussy, Ravel, Brahms and perhaps even Gershwin. Both musicians approach their craft with exacting precision, each able to ‘turn on a sixpence’ from emotional yearning – often characterised by Goloubev’s sustained, rhapsodic arco – to the tumbling, overflowing joy of Simcock’s dazzling piano.

Pastoral begins the journey with a pellucid, spacial simplicity which resembles Scandinavian folksong, pictorialised by droplet- and icicle-suggested effects before gaining gently-paced momentum – the first indication of the extraordinarily sensitive interaction that permeates the entire album. Also, it soon becomes apparent that these nine pieces are not for the background but, rather, demand close attention to fully appreciate the detail – indeed, importantly, at louder volumes the physical resonance is such that it’s easy to become involved at a much more intimate level. As an illustration, in Lost Romance, Goloubev’s lithe fingerwork annunciates every passage with such amazing depth, melodic accuracy, ringing harmonics and vibrato… it really is breathtaking, especially for an instrument so often consigned to plodding support! Shades of Pleasure explores major and minor keys with a luscious intertwining of piano and bass between its gently jarring main theme, set against a smoothly-ebbing piano ostinato, Goloubev again demonstrating his considerable dexterity.

In contrast to the duo’s quieter moments, Antics is a wondrously frolicking episode based around a familiar ‘playground jibe’ motif which the pair gladly tease each other with. Simcock seems to be establishing an upbeat pianistic style all of his own, featuring heavily accented chords and bounding baselines, best described as a ‘breakneck blues’ – such a compelling listen; and Yuri does well to chase him closely into every corner of these brisk four minutes. A Joy Forever tugs at the heartstrings, a beautifully emotive tune from the exquisite, cello-like fluidity of Goloubev, his switch from arco to fingered bass no less sublime (I recall seeing a young Gwilym Simcock playing many years ago with legendary drummer Bill Bruford – Earthworks, with Tim Garland – and the loftiness of this piece brings to mind Bruford’s own piano and bass gem, ‘Palewell Park’).

Non-Schumann Lied might be seen as reference to the artists’ classical beginnings, its songlike impressions maybe more elegantly Brahmsian in flavour; and Flow eddies and skips along to the lucid, colourful melodies that both instrumentalists share so keenly. The leggero ‘song without words’ feel of Vain Song finds Goloubev once again displaying a remarkable lightness of touch, Simcock hitting the heights of jazz soloing finesse (listen closely – this is a real treasure). And finally, an almost Elgarian Reverie (from the pen of 19th Century bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini) – its subtle Victorian shades, reminiscent of Chanson de Nuit, find Yuri Goloubev at his most classically lyrical (though not without idiosyncratic improvisatory interlude) against the restrained romantic piano of Simcock.

Gwilym Simcock and Yuri Goloubev are, separately, to be found in many different guises in a currently buzzing contemporary jazz scene. But here, they pause to forge beauty and majesty in this coming together of two acoustic instruments – illuminated, of course, by their combined musical genius.

‘Reverie at Schloss Elmau’ is released on the ACT label – more information and audio samples here.


Gwilym Simcock
piano
Yuri Goloubev double bass

ACT 9624-2 (2104)

‘Trio Riot’ – Trio Riot

TrioRiot

TRIO!… RIOT!… PUNK!… JAZZ!… BOOOOOOOOOOM!!!! It’s OK – I haven’t ‘lost it’ (as they say)… but this saxophone/drum trio is perhaps as hard-hitting and as ‘in your face’ as they come.

Released on the Efpi label, already renowned for blazing a trail of alternative improvisatory forms, Trio Riot bring us an eponymous album of honest, edgy, brash, chordless energy. With a sound that might encompass the ’60s jazz innovation of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, the gritty North-Eastern blues of Back Door and the anarchy of mid-’70s British punk, Anglo/Danish/Swiss band Trio Riot brandish an extreme vitality rarely heard on the current contemporary jazz scene.

Formed in Helsinki in 2009, the trio comprises Danish alto player Mette Rasmussen, Swiss tenorist Sam Andreae and, from the quintessentially northern UK oasis of Bollington (famous not least for its fine ales), drummer David Meier. Taking, as a musical parallel, the vast industrial heritage of Manchester, together these three instrumentalists creatively forge a feral, punchy and straight-down-the-line concoction of original, improvisatory, yet well-structured compositions which ‘take no prisoners’ when it comes to openness of heart and raw musical passion. You’re either ‘in’ or you’re ‘out’ (‘Marmite’-style) – but I defy you not to be impressed (as I am) with the conviction of Mette, Sam and David.

Opening number, 3, fanfares the trio’s intent – grating, trilled sax solos interspersed with heavy drum responses; squawking, guttural tenor lines and shrill alto shrieks against fast-paced rhythms (those of a nervous disposition, please alight here!). Lala-lala (an onomatapaeic title) provides a percussive canvas over which Rasmussen and Andreae duel with increasing fervour; and Rondeau finds both sax players in a less confrontational frame of mind – indeed, they’re maybe of a more cheeky mindset, challenging drummer Meier to play their rasping and fun-filled game. I’m So Glad It Wasn’t Me sputters and sparks with atonal brashness; and Candid is just that – outspoken, with almost timpani-like heaviness… all good stuff!

Bartstock opens (and closes) with contrapuntal vigour, Rasmussen and Andreae chirping wildly in-between, against the rapid complexity of Meier’s percussion. Duo is a tense conversation between alto and tenor, though not without the suggested unwanted interjection of Meier’s ‘nails on blackboard’ cymbal-screeching; and Guru is an all-out rumpus, with impressively anarchic, tremulant, harmonic tenor whinings.

Unsurprisingly, Dadadadadadadada (is that enough ‘da’s?) is an intense three-minute celebration of all things reed and percussion – love it or hate it, it’s simply (for me, at least) sheer, unalloyed madness… but all in the best possible taste! 31 is sparky, blistering, riotous and altogether… well, wonderful. And Disorder (Joy Division) just revels in the relentless punky/’discoey’ groove laid down by David Meier, Andreae’s tenor improvising against Rasmussen’s quirky, repetitious and percussive alto. Drawing breath, closing number The Last Hurrah finds a corrupted solace in the searing, sinewy combination of cymbals and reedy harmonics, until alto and tenor find a mutually common ground and, finally, real beauty in their partnership – a mutual coming-together.

Recorded in just two days, mixed by Alex Bonney and packaged in Efpi’s ever-distinctive screenprinted sumptuousness (courtesy of designer Simen Engen Larsen), ‘Trio Riot’ is released on 17 March 2014 – available here. Trio… RIOT!


Mette Rasmussen
alto saxophone
Sam Andreae tenor saxophone
David Meier drums

Efpi Records – 2014